by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In March 1842, nearly six years before James Marshall stumbled upon the precious metal while building a mill for John Sutter on the American River in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento, Francisco López made California’s first major gold discovery in Placerita Canyon at the western edge of the San Gabriel Mountains near modern Santa Clarita.
One of those who benefited from López’s find was F. P. F. Temple, who’d just arrived in Los Angeles nine months before in summer 1841 to meet his older half-brother, Jonathan, a prosperous merchant in the small pueblo in Mexico’s northwest frontier. Temple obtained gold dust from the surface, or placer, mines in the canyon and transmitted it to his brother Abraham, who lived in the family’s longtime hometown of Reading, Massachusetts.
Abraham, in turn, sent the dust to the American national mint in Philadelphia for processing and used the proceeds as his brother directed, whether to buy supplies and goods or to distribute funds to family members, including their widowed mother. Eventually, the Placerita Canyon field yielded its most easily obtainable supply of gold before the much larger Gold Rush erupted in the north.
Still, gold mining continued there and was avidly pursued elsewhere in the San Gabriels, with a primary area of interest being San Gabriel Canyon where the headwaters of the San Gabriel River are. An 1873 article in the Los Angeles Herald provided some early information on the formative years of gold prospecting in the canyon, noting that, in 1858, William K. Henninger located the first deposits of the precious metal in the area.
By the following year, the article continued, some six hundred men were said to be working various claims (and often contesting those of each other), with some working the river bed and banks, while most plowed through the canyon’s hillsides, including the excavation of tunnels. Only one ditch along which a small amount of sluicing was done constituted the only non-placer work in the district.
The piece added that the rush lasted until 1863, when a smallpox epidemic that ravaged several areas of greater Los Angeles struck the canyon “with unusual malignity among the miners,” of whom it was said that “every one left that was able to get away.” Moreover, discoveries of mines along the Colorado River in Arizona attracted many of the miners.
The Herald observed that:
While no large fortunes were acquired in these mines, it is doubtful where, in any locality on the coast, the returns were more uniformly certain and satisfactory, the miners almost always making fair wages. There are no means at hand of ascertaining the yield of the mines during those four or five years, but from the meager figures attainable, it is known that several millions of treasure were taken out, over two millions of dollars having passed through the hands of Los Angeles dealers alone.
One of those dealers was likely hardware merchant Charles Ducommun, who died in 1896 and a short statement in an Azusa newspaper averred that he told friends that he’d made millions from the San Gabriel Canyon gold mines.
The paper noted that, after 1863, there were a few Mexican miners who occasionally worked the canyon and “who would dig out a little gold, and then descend into the valley to expend their gains.” After years of sparse activity, however, the regional economy entered its first sustained period of growth by the late 1860s and which lasted through the mid-Seventies and interest was renewed in San Gabriel Canyon gold mining.
On 7 October 1870, W.W. Woodman established a claim and, finding that the San Gabriel mining district was considered abandoned, organized a new one. Whereas previous miners brought in supplies by pack mule over trails, either up the canyon in dry times or over the mountains and into the canyon in wet weather, Woodman built a wagon road, probably the earliest incarnation of Azusa Canyon Road.
Woodman established the San Gabriel Mining Company with William Ferguson, C.C. Higbie and H. Crow and, on New Year’s Day 1871, they began construction of a ditch, followed in the spring by Henry C. Roberts, who’d mined the area prior to 1863, and who “began the improvement of his claim, getting his hydraulic works in operation in December, 1871.” He added money and labor to the road, which extended in decent condition for some twenty miles, and had five workers in place on his claim.
Nearly 500 acres comprised the district in the early 1870s, including a full section of 160 on the San Gabriel Mining Company claim, a half-section controlled by Roberts and a partner Matfield, and four other claims ranging from 40 to 80 acres. Unlike the early primitive placer work, “all these claims are worked by the hydraulic method” with water run in ditches spanning about three miles in length and costing up to $20,000 to create. Hydraulic mining, however, meant blasting away at hillsides creating tremendous environmental damage and the practice was later banned by the state.
The Herald claimed that:
Of the richness of these mines there can be no doubt. From the head of the cañon to the mouth, a distance of about 35 miles, gold is found in paying quantities, even when washed in the most primitive style; and with the hydraulic process, washing down thousands of tons of gravel in a single day, the result cannot be otherwise than satisfactory.
The paper added that many of the current claims were bonded and, when those agreements lapsed, larger concerns with more money could come in and devote more resources to working the claims. It asserted that “all that is needed to make this one of the most important districts in the State, is capital and enterprise, and no great length of time will elapse, before every foot of the cañon from head to mouth will be worked.” One wonders what the state of the canyon would be now if that had transpired.
The dreaming continued with the statement that mining capitalists could work in a climate without snow suspending operations for lengthy periods and that “one could live in the valley close enough to supervise operations, and surround himself with orange groves.”
Then, just after speculating that the whole canyon could be mined “from head to foot,” the article abruptly switched gears to outdoor sports and tourism, stating “we wonder that it has not already become a popular resort.” After all, the canyon, with its “clear and beautiful mountain stream brawling over its rocky bed,” boasted “at every turn scenes of unusual beauty.” Here, it concluded, “the languid Eastern tourist might find a pleasant home in the summer months,” that is, until the entirety of the region was absorbed in hydraulic blasting in the search for gold.
This didn’t happen, because gold proved not to be as abundant as hoped and the regional economy collapsed in 1875 during a statewide panic that included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank. Roberts, however, continued to live in the area and either worked in mining and fruit growing in succeeding years.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1833, Roberts, who came to California for the Gold Rush with his father, Ebenezer, married Susana Melendrez, who was born in Old Mission, the community south of El Monte where the Temples lived. The couple had 15 children, 11 of whom, 9 sons and 2 girls, lived to adulthood. It was said that Roberts was also an attorney, realtor and author who made significant sums only to lose his fortune in investments in Mexican mines. He died by 1900 and his widow survived him by over three decades, residing in the same home in the mouth of the canyon they’d shared for many years.
When the much larger Boom of the Eighties erupted, a renewed phase of prospecting took place in San Gabriel Canyon. Roberts joined forces with other investors to form a new San Gabriel Mining Company, which was incorporated in February 1888. Today’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are an unused stock certificate and a blank order form from the company.
The other four partners were Anson H. Wood, J. Smith Briggs, Cornelius Cook and James F. Burns. The latter, born in New York, was very well known in greater Los Angeles, having arrived in 1853 and becoming a teacher at San Gabriel and then a merchant in Los Angeles. Later, he was county superintendent of schools, Los Angeles city treasurer and then achieved notoriety as county sheriff, serving from 1868 to 1872, when the horrific Chinese Massacre took place in October 1871. He was the Los Angeles Police Department chief for a few months in 1889 and he died in 1921 just shy of turning 90.
John Smith Briggs, a native of New York and a machinist by trade, came to Gold Rush California in 1849 and appears to have done well in four years of prospecting before he returned to his family’s home at South Bend, Indiana. From 1856 to 1859 he was back in California and gold mining and then went back to his hometown for a short spell.
Learning of the gold rush in Colorado, he hurried there and made a fortune at Black Hawk west of Denver with his Briggs Gold Company (which was sold by 1880 to a Denver investment group), declaring a personal estate value of $550,000 in the 1870 census when he resided in Kankakee, Illinois, south of Chicago. Briggs came to Santa Barbara during the Boom of the 1880s and then moved to Los Angeles where he manufactured machines that cut and pitted fruit. Briggs died in Los Angeles in 1918 at age 88.
Wood was a native of New York and in his early 60s when he invested in the project, having come to Los Angeles during the boom as a retiree from Michigan. Cook, a native of Ohio, was the resident manager of the San Gabriel Mining Company, having come to greater Los Angeles from Nebraska where he was a farmer.
After a year, however, Wood and Briggs were no longer directors of the company, which had Burns as its president. Instead, Los Angeles newspaper publisher and San Fernando area real estate investor Jesse Yarnell, Cook’s brother Charles, and William E. Morford, Jr. were elected to the board of the firm. Morford’s father was a life insurance and real estate agent and briefly managed the Pico House hotel at the Plaza in Los Angeles and the younger Morford appears to have worked for his father and may have died young not long after joining the mining company.
In May 1888, a news article stated that the firm had a 500-foot tunnel from which silver ore was extracted, a large stamp mill was in construction, and a large wheel utilized water from the San Gabriel River for power. A little over a year later, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the company “is having good luck in taking out gold” utilizing ten employees working “the old bed of the river and are finding large nuggets of pure gold” where the river was shifted and digging commenced. There was also mention of promising silver deposits in hillside ledges.
Then, there was little news until September 1895 when the Times ran a brief summary about some anecdotes of successful gold discoveries in the canyon and added that the company, which “has nearly reached bedrock for which they have been drifting for three years” anticipated “a large pocket of this yellow metal from this tunnel.”
In July 1896, a report from the Azusa Pomotropic noted that the company was “getting its business workings in a more systematic form” and that it was “being run in strict accordance with thorough business principles.” This suggested that the firm had been operated much to the contracy.
In 1897 a reorganization took place and Cornelius Cook, who’d promoted the tunnel idea, was serving as president. The Herald reported in March that work in the tunnel was to resume when the river level dropped and added that the headquarters of the firm moved from Los Angeles to Azusa. Another article in that paper two months later stated that a group of Illinois shareholders sent a proxy to company meetings and that work with the tunnel after five years “in attempting to reach a deeper stratum on bedrock” involved many thousands of dollars.
Then, in September, the Times ran another piece on canyon mining activity and, while it stated “no great fortunes have been taken out of the ground,” some miners believed there was a great deal of gold waiting to be unearthed, citing a rumor of years ago when prospectors found several thousands of dollars worth of the metal but lost it when high water came. As for the San Gabriel Mining Company, it noted that Henry A. Williams, a prominent Azusa figure, was now president replacing Cook, who remained as manager.
The article stated that the company, which then had two-thirds of its stock from outside investors from Illinois, had been at work for nine years with $20,000 expended in the tunnel under the river exploring bedrock and which was now some 1,300 feet long.
Plans were to continue the search at forty or fifty feet below the river. Williams, however, cautioned that “it is an underground game of poker” and that nothing yet had been taken out of the project in all that time.
In July 1898, the Times reported a strike by the company, starting that those in the firm were “just now in high glee” because a test of gravel in the 1,500-foot long tunnel was said to have “produced $17 gold, among which was a $6.50 nugget.” With this auspicious news, the short piece concluded, “some ten years of patient labor thus finds its reward.”
The gamble ultimately failed, though, when it came to finding more than trace amounts of the elusive precious metal. Cook died in 1902 after having spent twelve years directing operations. Williams continued on as president for a period and was succeeded by a son, but activity slowed to a crawl and the firm folded.
Then, came an unexpected bonanza for others with claims in the canyon. With occasional severe floods wreaking havoc on the region and with the San Gabriel River and its headwaters in the canyon being a major concern, county and federal planners worked aggressively to build dams in San Gabriel Canyon as part of a massive regional flood control plan.
In 1931, the Times reported that the San Gabriel Canyon Development Company was demanding $175,000 for its 62 claims for the San Gabriel Dam and Reservoir, part of a series of dams and spreading grounds planned after county voters approved a $25 million bond issue in 1924. Ultimately, the firm was paid for its properties and construction began in 1932 with completion seven years later.
A newspaper in Newhall, now part of Santa Clarita, where the 1842 discovery was made, editorialized that “those San Gabriel mining companies certainly pulled a good one.” It noted that, for all the expense and labor, the canyon “is not worth mining,” but the companies owned the land wanted for the dam project so they asked a price that the county was willing to pay. It added that, if this was a precedent, “it will be rich picking to take up gold mining claims wherever a check dam is likely to be built.”
Today, miners still work that canyon, especially the East Fork, though there is unlikely to be any fortunes to be made after over 160 years of prospecting. The San Gabriel Mining Company’s dozen or so years of concerted effort demonstrate the limits to what mining can accomplish in the canyon.